“Have you noticed?” WIRED magazine asks, in one of those encomia of progress that becomes sunnily unreal once it falls into the past. “Everywhere you look, pop culture has been digitized, resequenced, and reassembled.” The year is 2005, and the magazine, whose news beat is the future, is running a special issue on the “age of the remix.” The vision offered is utopian, as such visions usually are at first, celebrating the many cultural triumphs that have arrived as disparate forces hurtling toward each other in the information age. The lead example is Gorillaz, a multimedia music and art project spearheaded by Blur frontman Damon Albarn and Tank Girl illustrator Jamie Hewlett. Their own impression of the present climate, though, is a little more conflicted.
“I bought lots of old Betty Boop cartoons with really bad, aggressive Chinese overdubs and watched them with my daughter on a train traveling through Northern China,” Albarn tells the interviewer, sci-fi writer Neil Gaiman. “The area is utterly destroyed by all the farming—there was a 200-mile stretch where all the trees were dead. The scene felt totally apocalyptic.” This sight, he says, was the standout moment in conceptualizing the darkness of Demon Days, the second Gorillaz album, which is a document both of the world-changing possibilities of that postmodern remix impulse and of the world-destroying horrors of contemporary society. Cartoons and a barren landscape of environmental destruction: What could be a more poignant portrayal of modernity than that?
Today, the tormented, large-scale questions of Demon Days are more relevant than ever—a statement that will be true whether you are reading this essay in the year it was written, 2017, or much further down the line. The sense of dread that the world is ending has endured pretty reliably for thousands of years, as has the sense that maybe art can offer a reprieve, and neither seems to be in any danger of receding. We’re stuck with the doom and gloom, but we also have an artistic promise: that maybe those two impulses can be reconciled through the fusion of a monologue from Dennis Hopper, a children’s choir, and the rapped missives of Bootie Brown of the Pharcyde.
“The clashing, disorienting, fascinating world of Demon Days is a monument to the promise of the digital era.”
Albarn and Hewlett’s project originated as a silly idea that matured into a more pressing question: What if you could make a cartoon band famous? Interesting thought. But what if you had to make a cartoon band famous because you happened to be the unwilling figurehead of an increasingly moribund musical movement? What if a cartoon band were, in fact, the only way to explore the ideas you wanted to explore? Gorillaz wasn’t merely “virtual”; it was an escapist fantasy, allowing Albarn and his merry band of collaborators—most notably, Bay Area rap producer Dan the Automator—to play around in the sandbox of global sounds and weave far more grandiose tales around the resulting music than the garden variety Britpop frontman could. It paid off. The debut album was a runaway success, reverberating through culture in unexpected ways—50 Cent claimed to have come up with the name G-Unit after seeing the video for “Clint Eastwood,” for one—and setting the groundwork for a world in which music might be some grand, cosmic groove, all done in the service of an ego-less act of art.
Then 9/11 happened. In the years leading up to Demon Days, the world came to seem flatter, in ways both exhilarating and terrifying. Increased globalization and the expansion of the internet pulled together universes of information and ideas at breakneck speed, facilitating such promising concepts as, say, a mashup of Jay Z’sBlack Album and The Beatles’ White Album. Yet globalization also offered a vague, borderless “War on Terror” and accelerated the role that consumer consumption in Western countries played in environmental degradation abroad. Newfound pessimism suffused the US and the UK, allies in the metastasizing Iraq War, which George W. Bush had preemptively declared “Accomplished.” As Albarn and Hewlett played around with some unspecified concept of what the next iteration of this wacky multimedia experiment might look like, it was inevitable that a project devoted to reflecting the impulses of modernization would come to reflect each of these ideas. Hell, Albarn could even just go ahead and get the mashup guy, which is exactly what he did: If there was a pulse to the era, it was in the cultural collision offered by Grey Album creator Danger Mouse, who took the Dan the Automator role and partnered with Albarn to produce every track on the new album.
Demon Days opens with a sample of the soundtrack from Dawn of the Dead, and it proceeds to draw the contours of an empty sci-fi dystopia that sounds eerily familiar. There are meditations on children being conditioned for violence, the collapse of the environment, and a war that a speaker in a flight suit said was over. The party track, “Feel Good Inc.” opens with a sinister laugh and a groovy funk as it pokes at a culture of mass sedation. We’re on a journey where every planet we reach is dead, we’re all alone, it’s an eternal November. Rap verses bubble up out of the ether, breakbeats hurtle forward like mining carts heading off their tracks, and piercing electronic noise shrieks out like missives from the subconscious. Even the hook of the album’s most propulsive, sonically inventive track, the hit single “Dare,” is in fact the sound of Shaun Ryder asking the studio engineer to turn up the sound in his headphones—both an inspired moment of production wizardry and a monument to the idea of a garbage-strewn wasteland defined by ephemera. In an interview with MTV News about the Grammy nomination for “Feel Good Inc.,” the cartoon group’s guitarist, Noodle, explained that the song was inspired by the twin influences of William Blake’s “Jerusalem” and the ingredients on a bag of potato chips, a vision of media saturation that would give pause to even the dwarves of Donald Barthelme’s Snow White. This world is terrifying; even worse, the terrors are ones we created.
Only when the story of “Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head” arrives is there some sense that there’s an explanation for all this horror, that this might be a cautionary tale of demon days past, that it might be possible to find an escape the second time around. The story describes a peaceful, happy folk undone by the greed of outsiders eager to tamper with the mysteries of a volatile ecosystem. A vast castrophony ensues. The closing trilogy of tracks comes to paint a more hopeful vision of escaping the world of pollution, both ecological and informational, as a children’s choir ultimately exhorts the listener, “it’s a brand new day, so turn yourself around.”
The ending isn’t an accident; after all, this is a cartoon world, and cartoons offer the promise that you might be able to… draw your own conclusions. Yes, the world is full of war and horrors and darkness, but this whole time there’s been a counternarrative in the way that these songs sound (i.e. cool as hell). Demon Days imagines a continuous musical fabric in which Roots Manuva, Neneh Cherry, and De La Soul are all logical threads, as are a quartet of cartoons and a half-century of ideas from around the world. The way the spread of information has accelerated in the years since the album’s release has increasingly tied art to the idea of artists’ personal brands; pursuing a project that arose as a reaction to being an artist brand not only gave Albarn a way to sidestep the cliches of a rock star’s experimental phase but also suggested a collective future in the face of rapid technological change.
In the 2008 documentary Bananaz, Albarn compares Demon Days to film school, in the way that it offers a rapid survey of aesthetic concepts. It’s not hard to see how the immersive lore and audiovisual experience that is Gorillaz was also a redrawing of the lines of pop music in an art school mold and a spirit of genuine creative inquiry. Exchange had always been a part of pop culture, but what changed at the start of the millennium was the pace and density with which it could occur. The clashing, disorienting, fascinating world of Demon Days is a monument to that promise of the digital era. It’s a rejection of a global future defined by conflict in favor of one enriched by collaboration. It’s what happens when you get serious as hell about monkeying around.